A’s Acquire Reliever Jim Johnson From O’s

On Monday evening, the A’s acquired right-handed pitcher and closer Jim Johnson from the Baltimore Orioles for second baseman Jemile Weeks, in the latest “What The…?” move by A’s General Manager Billy Beane. He seems to have at least one of these every offseason. In 2011, it was signing Yoenis Cespedes. In 2012, it was trading for Jed Lowrie. Now, in 2o13, it’s trading for the two-time reigning AL saves leader.

The move swiftly fills the closer void in Oakland left by the impending departure of free agent Grant Balfour. Johnson has saved 101 games over the past two seasons, leading the American League in both 2012 and 2013. Johnson took over as the full time closer in Baltimore late in the 2011 season and has posted a 2.72 ERA over the past two seasons. He saved 51 games for the resurgent 2012 Orioles team, then saved 50 more this year. He became only the second pitcher in major league history to record back-to-back 50 save seasons (the only other being Eric Gagne in 2002 and 2003).

Before you get too excited, A’s fans, note that the Orioles played in a ton of close games over the past two years, and thus as a team had way more save opportunities than just about everybody else. In 2013, the Orioles had 84 save opportunities as a team, eleven more than the team with the second-most. In 2012, they were tied for the second-most save opportunities in the majors. The beneficiary of all of these ninth inning save chances, of course, was Johnson. So he isn’t exactly some ninth inning genius; he’s basically the product of context. He did blow nine saves last year and was a disaster in the 2012 ALDS, so he’s not some infallible Rivera-esque superman by any means.

The A’s are smart enough to know this, of course, and Johnson (who has just one year left on his contract), is most likely a one-year stopgap. He’s a reliable ninth inning option who never lets the ball leave the ballpark (just eight home runs surrendered over the past two seasons), and that latter ability should only be aided by the move to the pitcher-friendly Oakland ballpark. He won’t blow anybody away with stuff (career 6.0 K/9) and he isn’t a wild, fire-snorting Aussie, but for a guy who comes in to get three outs at the end of a ballgame, he does just fine. He’ll most likely join Billy Koch and Keith Foulke in the annals of A’s closers-for-a-year.

Jemile Weeks’s tenure with the A’s can only be described as a total disappointment. Rickie’s brother was selected 12th overall in the 2008 draft and burst upon the major league scene in 2011 by slashing .303/.340/.421 in 437 plate appearances. He looked like he had secured the starting second base position in Oakland for years to come (or, knowing the A’s, at least until his first arbitration year). Instead, Weeks suffered through a disastrous 2012 season, hitting a meager .221/.305/.304 and leaving a lot to be desired with the glove. He ended up back in the minors in August, and was then a forgotten man as the A’s rolled into the playoffs. He spent the majority of 2013 in AAA Sacramento and only managed nine September plate appearances as a mere afterthought in the A’s second straight playoff run.

Weeks may benefit from the change in environment, as he should get the opportunity to take the Orioles second base job from the departed Brian Roberts and the hapless Ryan Flaherty. Weeks showed he could get on base at a decent rate in Sacramento, posting a .376 OBP, so he’s certainly a decent cheap option for Baltimore. However, it’s easy to forget that he’s already almost 27, so time is a-wastin’. If he can clean up his glovework and continue to work counts and get on base at a solid rate, he should still be able to carve out a career.